If you’re in the market for an energy-efficient vacuum cleaner, you’ll have to look a long time – because according to ENERGY STAR®, they don’t exist yet. Current vacuum models waste 75% to 89% of their energy, with that lost power given off in the form of heat.
Fortunately, vacuums are used for such short periods of time that even when efficiency standards are put into place, ENERGY STAR estimates the savings will only be $7-$15 over the cleaner’s 7-year lifetime.
So if you’re shopping for a new model, don’t fret about efficiency; instead, focus on cleaning power, noise, price, ease of handling, and – if anyone in your home has allergies or asthma – a good filtration system.
According to ENERGY STAR, you can disregard any claims about high amperage. Most manufacturers try to persuade consumers that the higher the power use, the better the performance, but that’s no indicator. Most uprights, for example, have 12A ratings, but the model’s cleaning head design, brush mechanisms, system and overall design are often more important than its input power.
There are two reliable sources you can check to find information about buying a deep-cleaning vacuum: Consumer Reports, (you can search the buying information and get tips without having a membership); and the website of the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), where you can search for models that pass indoor air quality tests and meet standards for soil removal and carpet fiber retention.
Pet owners should bear in mind that vacuums that clean well also typically excel at removing pet hair. In addition, some models have special “pet hair remover” attachments that work well in picking up hair from upholstery.
It’s best to purchase a quiet vacuum, especially if you have bare floors (which tend to echo sound). Some models Consumer Reports tested produced 85 decibels or more, the level at which hearing protection is recommended. As a group, canister vacuums are generally quieter than uprights.
Price and handling
Consumer Reports says you can find good vacuums for about $100, though price will of course vary according to the style and manufacturer you choose:
Hand-helds. These are easy to use and very light, but they can’t deep-clean a carpet like an upright or canister. Use them for quick, surface cleaning jobs only.
Robotics. As tempting as a vacuuming robot seems in our busy modern age, Consumer Reports found these models were time-consuming to set up and run. They also missed edges and corners, and even sometimes managed to lock themselves in a room by closing the door behind them.
Sticks. These vacuums are lightweight and good for fast clean-ups. But their capacities are small, they don’t do as well on carpet as a hand-held and they’re fairly noisy – making them no substitute for a good, deep-cleaning model.
Central vacuums. The pros: Convenient, easy to use, relatively quiet and recommended for allergen control. The cons: they typically require professional installation, are pricey and storage space for their 30-foot hose can pose a problem.
Canisters. A good canister will clean carpets, bare floors, drapes, upholstery and under furniture about as well as an upright. They’re easier to maneuver on stairs, quieter and you don’t have to move the entire machine every inch of the way. But when you do have to move them, they tend to be heavier and bigger than an upright – and the hose and wand can be hard to store.
Uprights. Nearly all full-sized uprights clean bare floors well, but most are noisy. They also tend to be challenged by carpets – though they do make a wider cleaning swath than canisters. They’re easier to store, too – but because you have to drag the entire machine back and forth and some machines weigh more than 20 pounds, using an upright to clean a very large house can quickly become exhausting.
Vacuums that filter efficiently can significantly improve airborne dust and allergens in indoor air, which in turn helps those with asthma or allergies. The University of Illinois Extension Service recommends a central vacuum for asthma sufferers, because the dirt is funneled to the basement, garage, or outside, rather than venting back into the room.
If you can’t afford a central vac, though, look for a completely sealed canister or upright with an exhaust filter and motor filter. HEPA filters may help, but they’re no guarantee: in Consumer Reports’ tests, many models without HEPA filtered just as well as those with it. The overall design of the vacuum is more important than its type of filter – and how you clean makes a big difference, too: You should pass the vacuum over the target area up to eight times, and always replace bags when they’re half-full.